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Covering agriculture: Glossary of terms, concepts

Understanding the basic terms associated with agriculture-related topics will give you the knowledge base to conduct solid interviews and identify key trends.

To get you started, here’s a list of keywords to familiarize yourself with:

letterAAgricultural Adjustment Act of 1933: This set up the system of price supports.

Agriculture Census: A treasure chest of information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on how the land is used, and what is raised on it.

Agronomy: The science of growing crops and managing soil.

Alternative farming: Basically anything but growing one crop with conventional fertilizer. Can mean using only manure for fertilizer, growing organic crops, using integrated pest control.

American Farm Bureau FederationMainstay farm organization, pushes for policies that benefit agriculture.

Animal unit:  A unit of measure basedon feed requirements. A 1,000 pound beef cow equals one animal unit, for example.

Aquaculture: Producing aquatic animals or plants in ponds, tanks or other controlled environments. Example: catfish.

Artificial insemination (AI): The injection of semen into a female animal with a syringe.

Biological control of pests: The use of natural enemies such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control pests.

Biologics: Serums, vaccines and other living or inactive organisms used to prevent disease.

Biotechnology: Gene manipulation and transfer, plant regeneration and other techniques using living systems.

Brucellosis: A contagious disease in beef and dairy cattle. Causes abortions. In humans, known as undulant fever.

BST: Bovine somatotropin, or bovine growth hormone. A hormone from the pituitary gland of cattle. Controls amount of milk produced by cows.

letter cCombine: Machine used to harvest grain.

Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs):  Commonly called confinements, these are the increasingly concentrated livestock operations that are the backbone of today’s meat industry. They also are opposed by many environmentalists, small –scale farmers and others who see them as a unhealthy concentration of wealth and an environmentally dicey operation due to the amount of manure stored and spread in one area.

Census of Agriculture: Five-year check of the number of farms, land in farms, and other key statistics. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Check-off programs: Research and promotion programs backed by assessments paid by farmers.

Chicago Board of Trade: Futures and options exchange, now run by CME Group. Prime source for grain prices.

Commodities: Grain, livestock, butter, milk, etc. For grain prices, see the Chicago Board of Trade.

Commodity Credit Corporation: Set up under USDA to protect farm prices. Includes loans that allow farmers to hold grain until prices rise.

Compost: Organic matter such as leaves or corn stalks that have been decomposed in a pile and turned into a soil-like material.

Conservation compliance: Some federal aid requires that farmers working highly erodible land follow a conservation plan.

Conservation district:  Any unit of local government formed to carry out a local soil and water conservation program.

Conservation plan: Plans and practices meant to retain soil health.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): Voluntary program through U.S. Department of Agriculture that offers rent payments to farmers who use practices to save soil, which in turn provides wildlife habitat and can improve water quality.

Contour farming: Planting at right angles to the natural slope to cut soil erosion.

Contract feeder: Those who raise livestock, hogs for example, which are owned by someone else, often a corporation.

Co-ops: Cooperatives, which are organizations owned and run by farmers, who share in the responsibilities and profits. Many early ethanol plants were set up this way, as were long-standing grain elevator operations and some local power utilities.

Cooperative Extension System: A network that links land-grant universities with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A good source of information and tips on a wide range of agricultural topics.

Crop rotation: Changing crops from year to year to keep the soil healthy. For example, planting soybeans after a corn crop because soybeans are a legume that fixes nitrogen in the soil. Corn consumes nitrogen.

Dead zones: Areas of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Fertilizer runoff leads to algae blooms. When the algae die, oxygen is consumed, forcing sea creatures to move to a different area or die.

Disaster payments: Federal payments made to farmers when a natural disaster prevents planting or hurts yields.

Environmental Working Group: A nonprofit organization that has analyzed federal payments to farmers, showing that a small share get the bulk of the aid.

Ethanol: An alcohol fuel produced from corn, soybeans, sugar cane or other organic material.

Extension service: Education arm of land-grant universities, often with a wealth of information for reporters on both agriculture and climate.

letter fFeedlots: Open areas where livestock, particularly cattle, are raised.

Fertilizer: Any organic or inorganic material used to feed a crop. Includes nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from synthetic sources and manure.

Fungicide: A chemical used to kill fungi on crops.

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade: Known as GATT, an agreement that sets conduct codes for international trade.

Genetic engineering: Genetic modification of organisms to transfer traits.

Genome: All the genetic material in the chromosomes of an organism.

Green manure: Plants plowed under to improve soil.

Head: The business end of a combine or other farm machine, for example the apparatus used to harvest corn.

Herbicide: Chemicals that kill weeds.

Hog lots: A somewhat old-fashioned term that connotes raising hogs in a feedlot. In most cases, you’ll be dealing with operations that raise hogs in climate-controlled, heavily automated confinement buildings, with thousands of hogs in a few buildings.

Humus: Decomposed organic matter in soil that provides nutrients and helps hold moisture.

Hydroponics: Growing of plants in fertilized water.

Integrated crop management: A system that uses cropping techniques to control pests, including the use of resistant plants.

Inputs: The items needed to grow a crop, including fertilizers and pesticides.

Local control: County zoning of livestock confinements. Not allowed in many states.

Leaching: The loss of fertilizer when rain washes it from the soil.

Legumes: Plants such as peas, beans, soybeans, peanuts, clovers, alfalfas, and sweet clovers that convert nitrogen from the air in to nitrates in the soil.

letter nNational Cotton Council: One-stop shop for industry news.

No till: Technique in which crop stubble is left on the field to hold soil in place.

Nematode:  Microscopic soil worms that attack roots.

Nonpoint source pollution: Runoff from farms that can include soil, pesticides and chemicals.

North American Agricultural Journalists: Association of farm editors and writers, runs an annual contest.

National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES): Machinery in the Clean Water Act that requires permits for many industries and sewage plants that discharge treated wastes into rivers. Many livestock operations don’t need the permits, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has moved to require them of larger livestock operations.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS):  Federal department, part of USDA that focuses on conservation and related work. Originally established as the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, its programs promote conservation on the 70 percent of the nation’s land that is privately owned.Nutrient. A chemical element or compound plants need to grow.

Organic farming: A system that avoids using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and growth regulators in feed.

Pesticides: Chemicals that kill crop pests such as root worms.

Price support programs: Government programs that attempt to keep farm prices above a certain level.

Public Law 480 (P.L. 480): Common name for the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, aimed at expanding foreign markets for U.S. agricultural products.

Rangeland: Grassy areas used for livestock grazing.

Riparian rights: Legal water rights of a person owning land bordering a river or lake.

Ruminant: Animals such as cattle and deer with stomachs that have four compartments.

letter sSilage:  Fermented, chopped up grass, legumes, corn stalks used as animal feed..

Society of Environmental Journalists: Organization serving staff journalists and freelancers. Website includes huge topical index of sources. Member listserv offers advice on deadline. Annual conference often examines agricultural issues.

Sodbuster: Part of the Food Security Act of 1985 designed to discourage cropping on highly erodible land.

Soil erosion: T values. The soil erosion tolerance rate. Basically, the rate at which soil can be lost without losing too much. Takes into consideration how quickly new soil forms.

Sustainable agriculture: Systems that seek to grow crops and livestock while protecting the environment and using resources efficiently.

Swampbuster: Part of the Food Security Act of 1985 that discourages converting wetlands to crop fields.

Tillage: How the land is prepared for planting.

Yields: The amount of grain grown on a farm, usually expressed in bushels per acre.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):  runs the main farm support programs, including aid payments and environmental programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers for planting natural habitat on marginal crop ground.

Zoonotic diseases: Diseases that can be spread from animals to humans.

About the Author

Perry Beeman is a senior reporter at The Des Moines Register, focusing on environmental and agricultural issues. He has won several national awards from North American Agricultural Journalists and was a finalist for the 2008 Gerald Loeb Award at UCLA's Anderson School of Management for coverage of the environmental implications of the biofuels industry.

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